Monday, April 1, 2013

Something I am For

“So often we know exactly what we are against, but how often do we actually know what we are for?”

A woman named Juanita, who would be one of our guides for the trip, said this to us on our first day in Xela, Guatemala.  She was discussing the work of DESGUA, the organization that hosted us for the first half of our travel seminar in Guatemala, and her words really hit me hard. I came down to Tucson this semester firmly convinced, as I am now, that there is extreme injustice on the border and that it was my responsibility to inform members of my own communities in the Pacific Northwest about the horrible reality of immigration policies. But when someone would ask me “well then what do you propose differently?” My momentum and passion would slow a bit, and I would carefully say that I think there are a lot of alternatives to the current system, that I wasn’t an expert on any of them, and while they were complicated they had to be better than our current system. 

Even after spending several weeks on the border and learning about border politics in an intimate setting, I still was unable to articulate a complete or passionate defense of what I know that I am for, as much as I could for what I am against.

Even after the first day of presentations, I knew, with a wonderful feeling of certainty, that I was—and am—for DESGUA. It is an incredible organization that, in their own words, seeks to restore “el sueno guatemalteco”, or The Guatemalan Dream. This is meant as a direct alternative to the American Dream, as an attempt to restore dignity and purpose to life within Guatemala so that no one feels they have to travel North in search of a better life. 

We learned about some of the difficulties Guatemalans face upon their return to their home country. Many return with skills that they learned while working in the United States that they are unable to put to use in Guatemala, such as certain specialties like Thai cooking. They are also both familial and cultural reintegration problems with returned migrants who no longer identify with the community they emigrated from. Unfortunately, these conditions make it so that many migrants will decide to return to the U.S. after trying and failing to reintegrate. DESGUA seeks to restore in Guatemala opportunities for una vida digna through initiatives that provide alternative economies like Café Red, where returned migrants work and bring the knowledge and experience they had in the U.S. into an incredible culinary experience that our group was lucky enough to be treated to.

A lot of this program has been me unlearning and complicating everything I know. For example, African Palm is a tree that is grown in Guatemala and is used to make biofuel, a product that is being increasingly used in the US as "clean alternative" fuel. However, the production of African Palm (a non-native species) is actually wrecking havoc on the Guatemalan ecosystem because of how ecologically exhaustive the process is. The US, and other countries of the Global North pay countries like Guatemala to produce African Palm, but not enough to do it in a clean manner. The production of African Palm in Guatemala often ends up producing more greenhouse gases than coal or oil production. It all makes me think about the "greening" of the so-called "first world" at the expense of the "third world" and what actions we take to increase our own (imagined) quality of life without paying attention to who and how it affects. I find myself questioning more and more other practices that are thought to be a cure-all and who is excluded or harmed by it, even if I am seemingly benefited.

At the end of our time in Guatemala, we visited two small farming communities, La Florda and Santa Anita. In both places we were shown incredible generosity and hospitality. In La Florida, we split up into small groups and had dinner with families, and also had the opportunity to be part of a Mayan ceremony, an experience that I think I will never forget. During our “work day” all of us worked on different projects around the finca, from planting banana trees and harvesting cacao to helping build a house. 

We ended our time with DESGUA with a talk that discussed the difference between charity and solidarity. Charity is static, one-way and often one-time. While it may make the person who does a charitable act feel good about what they have done, it does little to enact lasting or significant change. In addressing symptoms instead of causes, it can actually cause dependence instead of independence, and fails to empower those who are receiving the charity. Solidarity is consensual (meaning that those on the receiving end have full awareness and agency in the process) and is also mutually beneficial. Instead of boosting our own self-image as a helper, acting in solidarity actually enacts positive change for the receiving community. Furthermore, it is long-term and requires commitment, instead of a one-time donation or volunteer stint. As such, it is more difficult. But it addresses the root causes of an issue and in doing so seeks to make a lasting impact. I was proud to witness the work of DESGUA because it acts as a wonderful model of solidarity and effective change within Guatemalan communities, and something I can definitely, finally, say that I am for.

-Keiler Beers

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